Monday, April 15, 2019

"What Kind of a Commando Are You?" - Hell of the Living Dead (1980)

If there are four words (and a comma) that define high-quality cinema, they are the following: Bruno Mattei, Claudio Fragasso. These filmmakers had their collective fingers on the collective pulse of the collective filmgoing public in the 1980s, and one of their finest achievements is the combined zombie/cannibal film Hell of the Living Dead (1980), aka Zombie Creeping Flesh aka Virus aka Night of the Zombie(s).

Oddly, a few of your universe's critics fail to appreciate this epic film. Reviewer Nic673 writes, "I`ve seen elementary students who could write a better script than this awful movie." Reviewer Kazetnick writes, "This is, without reservation, the worst zombie film I have ever seen. And I've seen almost all of them." And reviewer squeezebox writes (in addition to creating the word "plagiary") that the film "moves at such a maddeningly slow pace, it's an endurance test just to stay awake. Almost all its attempts at horror, whether it's gore or atmosphere, fall flat, and it's plagiary of dialogue, plot points and even MUSIC (stolen directly from the DAWN OF THE DEAD soundtrack) from it's superior predecessors is shameless."

Is the film a classic or the worst zombie film ever made? Or both? Please read on...

The film begins at a chemical plant, where technicians work shoulder-to-shoulder at an enormous control console, flipping switches and then moving back and forth to replace each other at different stations. In other words, everything is normal. White-haired Professor Barrett asks, “How’s the linear momentum?”

“No change in the reading, sir,” a technician responds.

Meanwhile, two other technicians dressed in what appear to be rubber nuns’ habits are taking kappa ray readings in the plant. After making some inappropriate sexist comments, they discover an emergency.

They discover a rat in the facility—a rat that climbs under one of the technician’s hoods and bloodily kills him. Somehow, this results in a cloud of green gas being unleashed in the facility, causing alarms to blare and yet another technician to say nonchalantly, “We’d better stop that leak or we’ll all be dead.”

Professor Barrett answers a phone: “Operation Sweet Death. Professor Barrett here.”

He orders the affected area to be sealed off. Then, for some reason, he leads a group of gas-masked people into the affected area, where they are predictably attacked by zombified technicians—though, fortunately, they are not unduly emotionally affected by this occurrence.

The only survivor, Professor Barrett returns to his office to record his log. “Experimental project Operation Sweet Death must be considered a complete failure. Some kind of degenerative process has begun which may be catastrophic for everybody. May God forgive us for what we have produced here, and pardon us for this evil we have created.” The green gas billows into his office.

Meanwhile, in a tangentially related movie, police surround the U.S. consulate, where armed thugs have taken hostages. A reporter asks the ridiculously offensive question to a policeman, “What do you think they are? Palestinians, Iranians, or a new kind of terrorist?”

“All we know is they’re damn good shots.”

“That’s a start,” the reporter replies, for unknown reasons.

A SWAT team talks about taking a vacation on an island and then break into the consulate. In order to heighten the similarities to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), Bruno Mattei scores the sequence with Goblin’s music from Dawn of the Dead. The SWAT team viciously murders the terrorists—one grabs an unarmed terrorist from behind and slashes his throat with a knife.

The lead terrorist says, “Damn it, I’m going to kill you all. We’re all doomed so it doesn’t matter a damn anyhow.” After the SWAT team shoots all the terrorists, the dying leader says prophetically, “You’re all doomed to a horrible death. Doomed to be eaten up. First they’ll kill you, then afterwards, you’ll be eaten, devoured, by men like you...your brothers.”

The film dissolves to the vacation island, which the SWAT team visits in their uniforms. They come across a graveyard full of skulls and one officer says, “Boy, with all them teeth, I’d sure like to have the dental concession here.”

Lt. Mike London, the leader, says, “It’s hot as a horse’s ass in fly time here, and I don’t like the heat.”

Elsewhere on the island, a TV crew that includes a man, woman, and their seven-year-old boy searches for water, after an offscreen native attack has injured the boy.

After the boy’s mother leaves the boy and his father in their SUV to look for water, a classic sequence of Italian horror plays out. The woman finds an infected priest, who attacks her; the attack is intercut with the boy becoming an angry zombie and with the rest of the crew encountering zombies in a reservoir.

The TV crew members, Lia and Max, analyze the situation. Lia, the reporter, says fearfully, “Who are they? Look at the way they walk.” Then she adds, “Just look at those faces. They look like monsters.”

He replies, “They could be drunk. Or drugged. Or maybe it’s a leper colony.”

They stand and talk while the zombies approach. For some reason, instead of running in the other direction, they run through a mass of three zombies, rudely pushing them over, and escape back to the buildings where they left the others. They run into Lt. London and his SWAT team, telling them there are weird creatures in the forest.

“You two guys, go take a look,” orders Lt. London.

“Okay,” says a typically formal SWAT team member. “Guess I better take an extra gun, huh?”

They soon discover the little boy eating his father.

When the SWAT members who took extra guns explore the buildings, we are treated to classic Claudio Fragasso writing. They see a zombie and one of the men goes for his gun. The other one says, “No, hold it! That’s not polite!” Then he reveals his motivation: “I get the first shot!” He swings around and machine-guns the zombie in the stomach. Of course, the zombie was not hit in the head, so it stumbles toward the men. It takes some time for the unfortunately dim SWAT team to discover that the zombies must be shot in the head.

Outside, the others are trying to deal with the little boy by shooting him in the stomach, to little effect. One of the men rushes over. “Leave it to me,” he says, and he shoots the boy in the stomach. The boy falls over. “All you have to do is shoot it right through the head,” the man explains, ignoring the fact that he completely missed the boy’s head. Perhaps one has only to aim for the head?

The SWAT team accompanies the two remaining reporters in a Jeep and an SUV as they drive through the jungle. As the SWAT team discusses ditching the reporters in a village, Mr. Mattei intercuts shots of monkeys leaping from tree to tree.

Then Lia, the reporter, strips off her clothes and puts on native makeup to appeal to the natives—though she is followed by the two vehicles at a distance of about five feet.

(In a technique that might seem offensive to modern sensibilities, Mr. Mattei follows stock footage shots of monkeys with stock footage shots of natives dancing.)

Lia watches the natives prepare food, which provides the grotesque real footage of animals being butchered that is traditional in Italian cannibal films; she also watches what appears to be a zombie-free funeral/cannibal ritual. She infiltrates the village, which proves to be full of nice gentlemen with well-trimmed Afros and beards. To prove herself to them, she puts on a monkey mask.

Meanwhile, Max films the goings-on in the cannibal village while licking his lips.

After some vomiting at the villagers’ ceremony, Lia leaves one of the huts and encounters Lt. London drinking at his Jeep. “Couldn’t you stop acting in that formal manner of yours?” she asks as he swigs from his flask. “Do you have to be so military?”

“When a soldier is out on an important mission, he has no time for sentiment.”

Apropos of nothing, Lia responds, “I wish to God I knew what’s happening here. Why should nature suddenly start breaking its own laws? Why should the dead come back to life...and walk around?”

As if on cue, a body returns to life while Lia continues talking and talking...and talking. While this one zombie is easily dispatched by London with the butt of his rifle, another group of zombies approaches, all of them inexplicably sporting damaged calves.

The village erupts in chaos as the zombies, who origin remains mysterious, begin eating the tribespeople while the white reporters and paramilitary men simply drive away in their Jeeps.

The next day, London and his SWAT team fight with Lia and Max about keeping their film. Lia pulls a gun on London. She says, eloquently, “In case you’ve got the idea that a woman would be afraid to shoot you, just forget it, cause you wouldn’t be the first one I’ve had to shoot in my life either. I took care of one jerk who thought he was tough enough to rape me.”

Later, after the conflict is resolved, one of the SWAT team flirts with Lia, telling her that if they were in Washington instead of the jungle, they would already be in the sack together. Of course, Lia finds this conversation charming, until Lt. London punches the flirt, knocking him unconscious.

When a horde of zombies creeps slowly from the cover of a forest, London says disappointedly, “Oh, no. That’s all we needed.”

Max foolishly decides to shoot film of the zombies, getting very close to them. “That’s it, boys,” he tells the zombies, “hold still for a nice closeup.”

The SWAT team members attempt to rescue Max by shooting the zombies, though they have forgotten that they must shoot them in the head, resulting in both a waste of ammunition and frustrated facial expressions.

Everyone escapes quite easily from the zombie horde, and the film cuts to the United Nations, where the few ambassadors who remain throw papers at each other for undisclosed reasons.

Back on the island, the SWAT team and the reporters find a nice ranch house. They enter together, sliding open the doors and posing with guns as if for a lobby card photo.

The ranch house becomes an analog of the mall in Dawn of the Dead, and in a clever twist on expectations, one of the SWAT team members tries on a green dancer’s tutu he found in a closet.

A few minutes later, he is assaulted by a trio of zombies who appear out of nowhere, as another of the SWAT team is attacked by an elderly woman who resembles former U.S. first lady Mrs. Barbara Bush.

The others find the man in the tutu. “Look at that! They’re eating him like pigs! Goddamn ghouls!”

Forced to escape from the house once night falls, everyone gets back in the car and drives away. Surprisingly, however, one of the zombies opens the car door as they are driving and climbs into the car. Fortunately, our human heroes remember to shoot this particular zombie in the head.

The car stalls and London tries to get it running. Max scolds him: “What kind of a commando are you? Get it started!” He does so, and the group drives away again with no casualties.

After a full night of driving, the group finds the shore of what they call a river. They find a very small boat, climb in, and sail into the river, eventually navigating their way to the Operation Sweet Death facility, the target of their mission all along. “One thing is certain. We’d better stick together as a group if we’re going inside.”

They go inside, and then immediately split up, with Max and a SWAT member looking for an elevator. Unfortunately for Max, the elevator is filled with zombies, and they quickly devour him.

The survivors reach the roof of the building, where they are attacked by more zombies. They find a staircase that leads up above the roof.

It appears their mission was to find a tape recorder detailing the last minutes of Operation Sweet Death. They succeed and realize that the facility produced a vapor that caused the zombie outbreak.

Lia explains everything, though it is unclear how she deduced the solution. “They were centers of chemical research for the good of mankind, to help countries that are still underdeveloped. That was the cover—the official story, while the reality was terrible...unbelievable. They were working on a solution to the problem that most torments the industrialized countries: the overpopulation of the world.”

A horde of scientist and technician zombies descends the staircase.

Lia continues: “Dispose of the weakest elements, the most defenseless, the most numerous, in the simplest possible way: just cause them all to eat each other.” (A pedantic person might argue that there are simpler ways to kill people, but I am not one of them.)

In a surprisingly gory finale, Lia is killed when a zombie reaches into her mouth, pulls out her tongue, and then for no apparent reason reaches up inside her head to push her eyeballs out through her eye sockets.

One of the finest aspects of Hell of the Living Dead is the fact that, to coin a clever phrase, it has its human body and eats it to, as it is both an effective cannibal movie and an effective zombie movie. It is also, of course, a political allegory that says things that most movies don't dare to say: the first world does not like the third world. In fact, the goal of the first world is to make everyone who lives in the third world eat each other, in order to save the first world the trouble of using up precious resources. One can only conjecture whether there was a real Operation Sweet Death funded by the United Nations to sweeten the deaths of ninety percent of the world's population; if so, this film is a fine document of that sinister plot, and not simply a fine cannibal film and a fine zombie film. And for all this, we must be grateful to Bruno Mattei and to Claudio Fragasso, two of the finest filmmakers to grace either the first world or the third world...or the second world, too. Whatever that is.